If you want to draw a comparison between Lasse Hallstrom’s opulent take on the notorious eighteenth-century Venetian rake and previous movies about him, it’s definitely closer to Bob Hope’s 1954 comedy “Casanova’s Big Night” than to Fellini’s famously odd 1976 fantasia starring Donald Sutherland. But the picture it’s really most reminiscent of, if you ignore the change of locale and this film’s more refined, elegant style, is Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones,” about another celebrated period Lothario. The far more genteel “Casanova” doesn’t have the same edgy energy–so symptomatic of the swinging sixties–and certainly doesn’t emulate the cinematic wildness that Richardson gloried in. But there are lots of similarities, from the rambunctiousness of the hero to the last-minute escape at the end, in the plot, and if it hardly matches the earlier movie, the picture still offers considerable pleasures by traversing familiar ground in a different way.
It also represents a career-restoring high for two of its major players. One is Heath Ledger, for whom 2005 has already been an amazing year with his supporting turn in “Lords of Dogtown” (the best thing about that movie) and his shattering performance in “Brokedown Mountain.” (We’ll forget about “The Brothers Grimm,” as that catastrophe was actually filmed some time ago and long delayed.) Here he makes Casanova an agreeable, if not ideally charismatic, rogue as the lascivious gentleman tries to avoid the not-so-tender ministrations of determined inquisitor Bishop Pucci (a wonderfully waspish Jeremy Irons) while conniving to romance the Francesca Bruni (pleasant, though not radiant Sienna Miller), a feminist-before-her-time who publishes provocative treatises under a male pseudonym. He does so by adopting the guise of her pre-arranged husband-to-be Papprizzio while keeping the real Papprizzio (Oliver Platt, again showing himself an able farceur) under wraps and staving off the advances of Victoria (Natalie Dormer), a besotted young noblewoman to whom he’d recently gotten engaged for political reasons. Further complications involve Francesca’s brother Giovanni (the amiable Charlie Cox), who’s passionately in love with Victoria–whom he’s never met but has long admired from afar–and their mother Andrea (still-lovely Lena Olin), a widow with a taste for chubby men, as well as Casanova’s loyal servant Lupo (scene-stealing Omid Djalili) and The Doge himself (Tim McInnerny). Mistaken identities and happy coincidences are the rule as the picture wends its way to a wackily satisfying denouement.
This convoluted scenario, credited to Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, owes far less to history than to the sort of complexities characteristic of the comedies of Shakespeare (though hardly in the same league), but it provides opportunities for farcically antic moments and quieter romantic ones in about equal measure, as well as a few big festive scenes (a masked ball, the carnivale), and it makes for a mostly charming time. Still, it might have flopped badly if it weren’t for the wonderful Venetian locations, beautifully shot by Oliver Stapleton in widescreen–the city has never looked better on film–the lovely production design (by David Gropman) and costumes (by Jenny Beavan), and the smooth, if not always truly airy, direction by Hallstrom–the second person whose career is likely to benefit substantially from the picture; here he finally shrugs off the Lasse-tude that’s encumbered his recent efforts (“The Cider House Rules” and “The Shipping News”). The result is a good-looking picture that should especially satisfy upper-middlebrow adult audiences–a high-toned crowd-pleaser, if you will. And it’s a film that’s also a pleasure to listen to, not only because of the clever dialogue but also because of a buoyant score, which mingles some newly-composed music by Antoine Desplat with a nifty selection of baroque pieces by Vivaldi and (especially, though curiously, given the Italian setting) Rameau and Telemann.
There is, inevitably, an ephemeral quality to “Casanova”–like most of the character’s affairs, the movie is more one-night stand than long-term romance, and while it’s very enjoyable as you’re watching it, it’s not likely to stick with you for long. But in today’s movie theatres one should embrace even the most transitory of pleasures. This movie may not be particularly memorable–as “Tom Jones” was–but it makes for a pleasant couple of hours.